Over the last 50 years, the bicycle has featured regularly in images of grassroots activism across the Western world. It has come to be associated with eccentrics, anarchists, the politically radical, and the culturally dissident. The bicycle – an object that remains in essence identical to its first incarnation – has ironically become a symbol of progression and a tool for inciting change. As such, the humble bicycle transgresses the postmodern by existing as both a symbol for radicalism and an act to aid it.
The bicycle started its life as a toy of the bourgeois though. It was ridden for leisure and for sport, predominantly by men, but eventually by women too – once the fashion for step through frames caught on of course. The birth of mass production techniques in the early 1900s coincides with a change in the role of the bicycle in society, first lowering the cost of bicycle manufacture, then increasing the availability of second hand bicycles, and eventually increasing the availability of abandoned bikes and bike parts. My Dad tells me that he built his first bike from parts salvaged and stolen from the local scrap yard in Glasgow. That’s about as cheap as it gets, surely?
What we see therefore is that over the course of the first half of the 20th Century the bike transitions from upper class plaything to working class utility, and by the mid to late 20th Century the bicycle was, along with walking, the main form of transport for the working class. 1960s photographs of Yorkshire miners cycling en masse to the pits are a powerful reminder of a time when cyclists ruled the roads. Work opportunities were no longer restricted by the distance you could walk, but by the distance you could cycle. The bicycle offered opportunity, and where there’s opportunity there’s aspiration.
The bicycle’s radical potential – its role as vehicle for aspiration, for autonomy, for emancipation from the mechanisms of an oppressive society – was utilised long before its mass manufacture though, when it became the vehicle of choice for the Suffragettes in the early 1900s. Decked out in purple, white and green, these campaigners for women’s equality cycled across towns and villages distributing pamphlets, organising bicycle crusades across the UK, and generally just using their bikes to be as visible as they damn well could be.
Of course, many of the Suffragettes were born into middle class families. Though this does not diminish their struggle, nor their courage and accomplishment, it does mean that they had access to the resources and space in which to develop politically, and many of them had access to the expensive playthings, such as bikes. However, over the first half of the 20th Century mass manufacture made the bicycle more accessible and it meant that more people could follow the Suffragettes’ example and exploit its radical potential.
However, it’s not simply mass manufacture that has changed the social value of the bicycle. It’s also the invention of and consequent mass manufacture and availability of the motor car. Considering that the bicycle was intended as a mode of transport, whether utilitarian or sporting, it’s easy to see how the motorcar quite literally overtook the bike – it went faster, it went further, and it required considerably less effort.
And it is really alongside the motorcar that the bicycle’s political identity has been forged. Anyone who takes to the road by bicycle in the UK is almost inevitably politicized by its polarity to the entitlement of motor vehicles. Carriageways across the country, once dominated by bicycles, are now maintained and promoted as the domain of the motor. Our identity is always defined by difference, and it is so often forged at points of conflict. It is therefore inevitable that as we place our bicycle onto the road each morning we embody our role as ‘cyclist’.
But what is it about ‘the cyclist’ that society finds so threatening?
Firstly, on a base level the act of cycling is a reclamation of our physical bodies in an economic system that functions by controlling and exploiting them. Physical activity has for millenia had a price attached to it. We’ve traded it, we’ve sold it, and we’ve attached symbolic value to it. In more recent times physical activity has come to be associated with meniality, with physical labour and, in a society that is now built upon service industries, it is associated with a way of life that is dying out. The West is defined by progress; building bigger, earning more, dominating others. The stubborn ludditeness of the bicycle threatens this entire model.
Secondly, to exert physical energy is to deprive oneself, whether it’s to be subject to economic exploitation and working, or by dieting and working out in pursuit of a more slimline aesthetic. Either way, simply choosing to travel by bike is pretty radical. Yes, there are other ways of getting around, but I like riding my bike, I like the way it feels, and how I feel about the way my body feels is actually really bloody important, despite what Cosmopolitan might tell me each month.
Thirdly, bikes offer us a freedom and an autonomy so often denied in contemporary Western society. They are ready to go whenever you are and how soon you get somewhere depends almost solely on you. Your commute can be swift and time efficient, if that’s what you choose, but if scenery, an extra lap of the park, or a chat with a friend has more value to you than that great currency of time, then it can be scenery-efficient, exercise-efficient, or friend-efficient too. Bikes offer children that first taste of freedom as they propel themselves through the park, away from the safety and security of their grown-up carer. Bikes offer refugees in the UK the opportunity to travel across cities to see the few people they may know and to make new connections they need. Bikes give young NEETs a way to travel to job interviews and become independent. Bikes and trikes offer people with disabilities the opportunity to move themselves in ways society and nature have not previously allowed. Next time you feel society close a door on you, try cycling through it.
And finally, the bike is pretty resistant to the soft-panopticism, or the subtle surveillances, of modern society. They are unmonitored. They can be handbuilt and adapted. They require no fuel and no expense beyond its raw components and time. Have you ever wondered how many of the cyclists you saw during your ride were living off the grid – because it could be any of them! Cyclists are not only eccentrics who see no value in a rushed journey or a senseless existence – we are all potential radicals, dissidents in disguise!
With ‘peak oil’ visible on the horizon and lawmakers coming uncomfortably close to admitting that our economic model is unsustainable, the humble bicycle – the object that remains in essence identical to its first incarnation – has become symbolic of a very uncomfortable message to the establishment.